A major new exhibition of work by Gerhard Richter opened in Düsseldorf this week. The Dresden-born artist is currently one of the most sought after in the world.
Gerhard Richter forged a path for post-war German artists
The show almost didn't happen. In 2002, New York's Museum of Modern Art organized a Richter retrospective to mark the artist's 70th birthday. Put to shame by Germany's failure to honor one of the country's most auspicious artists itself, Armin Zweite from the North Rhine Westphalian Art Collection and Helmut Friedel from Lenbachhaus in Munich set about putting the record straight.
The result is a smaller-scale exhibition, but one with the advantage of having enjoyed hands-on input from Richter himself -- a publicity-shy man who now lives in Cologne and commands some of the highest prices on the contemporary art market.
One of the most important German artists since World War II, he personally oversaw preparations for the retrospective that includes over 120 pieces in various techniques and styles, arranged thematically rather than chronologically, including abstract painting, classically-inspired portraits and works on glass.
To many, his eclectic style was a reaction to the restrictions shackling artists in communist East Germany. Trained in Socialist Realism and well-versed in the state-approved Romantic painting tradition, he fled Dresden for the West in 1961 and began studying at the Düsseldorf Art Academy -- where he would later become professor.
His subsequent versatility reflected a fascination with various forms of the avant garde, such as Expressionism, Pop Art and the Fluxus movement.
A large part of the new show features his trademark paintings that resemble slightly out-of-focus photographs, which he first began making in the early 1960s.
A striking example of the technique are his paintings of American airplanes; Mustang Squadrons; Bombers and Phantom Interceptor planes in ghostly gray formations, images informed by Richter's experience of the 1945 Dresden fire-bombing.
Being an artist in post-war Germany was fraught with tensions -- and Richter was very much a product of these tensions. All sense of national identity had been destroyed by the Third Reich, while the harsh political divisions of the Cold War cleaved the country in two.
His photo paintings were an attempt to find a new aesthetic form that reflected an independent realism. Over the years, he struggled to tread the line between figuration and abstraction, taking his most decisive step away from the latter with his Baader-Meinhof series, a collection of images that have gained an added resonance in the light of the recent outcry over an exhibition about the Red Army Faction in Berlin's Kunstwerke (photo).
No system, no agenda
Although it was given an angry reception when first exhibited, most critics agree that Richter's masterpiece is his "October 18, 1977" suite of thirteen, famously fuzzy paintings, completed in 1988, of the dead members of Germany's terrorist group.
Controversy has only cemented his reputation. Today, collectors will pay up to $5 million for a Richter work
"I have no intention, no system, no direction," he once said. "I have no agenda, no style, no point to make."
Gerhard Richter at the Düsseldorf Kunstsammlung NRW is open until May 16, 2005